SPOILERS FOR WHAT IF…? AHEAD!
One of the great things about anthologies, Marvel’s What If…? being one of them, is that you (usually) never have to spend too long in a story setting that bores you, or with characters who grate on your nerves, before you’re on your way again. That’s not to say the next installment will always be good, but variety keeps things interesting – and I’m finding that’s especially true of What If…?, which at least finds ways to shake things up each week, even if the series has yet to reach another high-point on the level of episode four and has declined markedly in quality in its last two episodes.
It’s a bit of a shame, too, because with a little more focus and a few touch-ups to the script, I think What If…? could surely have done something more interesting with a character as wonderfully ridiculous as Party Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the unofficial nickname of this Variant of the MCU’s Thor who comes to Midgard to escape his kingly duties on Asgard and ends up hosting an intergalactic get-together based out of Las Vegas that threatens to tear the earth apart.
That intriguing concept harkens back to actual Norse mythology, which is a lot more weird and trippy than I think most MCU stans realize (as evidenced by all the MCU Loki fans horrified that he could ever be attracted to himself, as if mythological Loki didn’t turn into a mare so he could…uh, have “diplomatic relations” with a stallion and give birth to that stallion’s babies). The MCU’s version of Thor has never been much like the mythological character who would go out partying with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the giants of Jotunheim, only to find himself trying to drink the ocean out of a horn, so it’s pretty awesome as a fan of both to see some crossover there, and even spot a couple callbacks to the myths.
But these are the MCU versions of Thor and Loki we’re dealing with, and that’s not a bad thing by any means. For one thing, it allows the scope of today’s What If…? to expand well beyond Asgard and Midgard. There are cameos, some sizable and some of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety, from a bunch of cosmic characters plucked mostly from Thor: Ragnarok and the Guardians Of The Galaxy franchise. Jeff Goldblum pops up as The Grandmaster (and “release the foam” is instantly immortalized as one of the character’s most iconic lines); Karen Gillan, Taika Waititi, and Clancy Brown reprise their roles as Nebula, Korg, and the Norse deity Surtur, respectively, while Mantis, Rocket Raccoon, Yondu, Ayesha and Valkyrie all have background roles.
The only character missing from the crowd, or at least the only character I missed, is Hela. The Nexus Event of this whole timeline is Odin returning Loki to his birth-parents in Jotunheim and raising Thor as an only child, but technically Thor’s sister Hela should still exist in this timeline regardless – and personally, I think What If…? missed out on a great opportunity by not having her living in Vegas and running her own casino when Thor arrives. It’s an actual storyline in the comics, people! Forget Party Thor, we could have had Party Hela!
Unfortunately, even with this incredible assortment of characters all onscreen at once like it’s the Endgame of parties (which technically it’s about to be if they don’t all leave), the story still finds a way to drag…perhaps because it’s centered around a romance between Thor and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) that didn’t work seven years ago when the MCU tried to make that a thing, and still doesn’t work now. In a franchise in which Steve Rogers once kissed his dead girlfriend’s niece, and where the most believable romance is between a woman and a sentient computer program, Thor and Jane still somehow stands out as one of the MCU’s low-points when it comes to love-stories.
It wasn’t just that Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman had no chemistry, either, or that every time they shared the screen Hemsworth looked vaguely uncomfortable and Portman seemed bored out of her mind. It was more so that the early Thor movies hinged on the notion that their characters were soulmates being forced apart by the universe itself, and nothing about their painfully apathetic performances seemed to back that up. At least in What If…?, Hemsworth and Portman both seem more enthusiastic about the whole business and Hemsworth is leaning into his strengths as a comedian, which makes their interactions amusing to watch if not particularly romantic, but there’s still nothing that explains why these two are supposedly fated to fall in love.
Frankly, I was far more interested in the high-speed romance between Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and Howard the Duck (voiced by Seth Green) that unfolds across just a handful of scenes, in which they go on a date, get married in Vegas by an Elvis impersonator, and are last seen squabbling like an old couple. It’s the kind of outlandish pairing that makes absolutely no sense on paper, but in execution it just works. It’s ridiculous, yet completely in-character for both Howard and Darcy, and I bought their chemistry and mutual attraction for each other.
With subplots like that, the heavy focus on Thor and Jane’s relationship feels underwhelming, and the happy ending to their love story tacked on at the end of the episode is so contrived that the episode itself immediately turns around and forces a new problem to arise: one involving What If…?‘s ultimate big bad, revealed here for the first time – an alternate version of the genocidal cyborg Ultron who’s apparently succeeded in downloading his consciousness into the Vision’s body and then also conveniently picked up some Infinity Stones along the way. As we near the end of the season, I hope to learn more about this Ultron in next week’s episode.
I also hope that we get to see more of Carol Danvers (voiced by Alexandra Daniels) before the season’s end. She has a pivotal role in this week’s episode, summoned from the heavens by S.H.I.E.L.D. to put an end to Thor’s partying – allowing for an effective if slightly shallow commentary on how women are often depicted in media as being “no fun”. I enjoyed seeing Carol trade punches with Thor in an epic battle spanning several continents, and I admired her capacity for understanding and empathy; but I’m still not sure how I feel about her – and most of the women around Thor, for that matter – having to teach him lessons about responsibility and common decency.
Oh, and as for who would win a duel between Thor and Carol, the episode doesn’t fully answer that question which has long riled up MCU fan-forums. The two cosmic heroes seem pretty evenly matched in their first fight: Carol’s power-absorption protects her from Thor’s lightning, and she’s stunned but not seriously injured by a blow to the head from Mjolnir – ultimately, it’s only when Thor uses the hammer to pin her down that she’s defeated. But Carol reveals later that she’s unable to use her full power on earth without making a considerable dent in the planet’s surface, and when she does lure Thor out to Siberia to try and fight him more freely, the fight seems to be turning in her favor before it’s interrupted. Sorry, Thor, but I think Carol wins this one; and someday I’d love to see a fight between the two where neither has to hold back.
Episode Rating: 7.5/10